‘The Society for Soulless Girls’ – Laura Steven

Jekyll and Hyde inspired story…school setting…supernatural…I was curious about this the moment I saw it on NetGalley, and I wasn’t disappointed.
The elite Carvell College of Arts has a fantastic academic reputation, but it’s association with student deaths has haunted it. Ever since her family friend Janie died there, having jumped from the infamous North Tower, Lottie is determined to find out what happened. Much against her family’s wishes, Lottie enrols at the college.

From the outset she feels a darkness to the place. Her roommate, Alice, appears unnaturally angry. Lottie finds herself waking in the middle of the night, covered in dirt, with no memory of having left her room. One morning she finds herself with a ruby – which seems to come from the statue of Saint Maria – embedded in her neck. Whenever she talks about leaving the place, the ruby grips her throat and causes intense physical pain. Soon after their arrival at college a student is found dead outside the North Tower. On the night in question Alice (having experimented in a ritual she finds written down in a mysterious book in the library) has several unaccounted hours and wakes drenched in blood.

When I see those events recorded in the way I have just presented them, this book sounds crazy. It requires you to suspend your disbelief and trust that the supernatural elements serve a purpose…and they do.

Once the parallels between Jekyll and Hyde were explicitly made, and we focused on the mystery surrounding the college, the book became more interesting. At its heart it is a story about friendship, love and trusting in others to help – while taking on those who would do their best to crush women simply for daring to have strong emotions!

 

‘I Kissed Shara Wheeler’ – Casey McQuiston

Thanks to NetGalley for allowing me a glimpse of this before its release. While it didn’t have quite the emotional pull of the other McQuiston books I’d read, it drew together nicely.

Our focus is Chloe Green who’s in competition with Shara Wheeler, the Principal’s daughter, for valedictorian. Both girls are fiercely competitive and they have, for the past four years, danced a strange dance of one-upmanship. When the book opens, rumours abound as Shara has disappeared.

Determined that she will not be given the top spot by default, Chloe vows to find Shara and get her back to school in time for graduation.

The main thrust of the book focused on this rather odd scavenger hunt orchestrated by Shara who has left cryptic notes for three people, all of whom kissed Shara before she left. As we only learn about Shara through the veil of someone else’s view, I found it hard to work out quite what kind of character we were looking at. I also found the setting of the book – a strong Christian homophobic setting – really off-putting. People were pigeon-holed and made to feel wholly uncomfortable, nobody seemed to do anything about it, and it appeared to have been this way since Chloe’s mum endured coming out years earlier.

While the days before Shana appeared were instrumental in helping to develop the characters, it was once everyone was back in their rightful place that I felt things started to fall into place for me as a reader. Chloe opened her eyes a little and started to look beyond herself. It had a relatively happy ending, even though there was clearly a long way to go!

 

‘Felix Ever After’ – Kacen Callender

I admit to picking this up because I fell in love with the cover…sprayed edges made this a joy to look at. The content felt as if it might be an awkward read – I wondered if I could honestly sit through something where a character who is trying to be themselves gets such awful abuse. How would the author tackle some pretty hard-hitting issues?

I needn’t have worried. From start to finish, I was in safe hands.

Callender creates a very real character in Felix. Trans, black and gay…he worries he will never fit in anywhere and wants nothing more than to fall in love. He is a talented artist, but his feelings around his identity seem to be preventing him from really expressing himself. He gets angry, he messes up, on occasion he does some really hurtful things and yet there’s a searing honesty to him that I found touching.

The story focuses on Felix coming to terms with some questions about his identity, developing relationships and coming of age. There’s romance, though not quite in the way I expected it to go.

There’s no escaping the fact that the incident that is at the heart of much of the book – another student’s disgusting gallery show of old pictures and public deadnaming of Felix – was stomach-churning. The response from Felix and his friends was not, perhaps, the most sensible…but it was done with the right intentions. I loved the strength and support shown to Felix by those who he didn’t always recognise as allies.

While the love triangle was necessary to help Felix start to realise what/who mattered to him, I found myself most impacted by the scenes involving Declan’s grandfather and Felix’s dad. It was nice to see someone else’s view of things, and it was encouraging to see that people in such a situation will react differently.

There’s no guidebook to how to manage such a scenario, but this book will certainly offer support and encouragement. Highly recommended (and the cover is so beautiful that I’m tempted to put it on my bookshelf the wrong way round just so I can see the edges!)

 

 

‘A Lesson in Vengeance’ – Victoria Lee

A Lesson in Vengeance is a twisted story, which will probably warrant a reread to appreciate fully.

Set in the Dalloway School, a remote academic establishment mired in rumour and stories of witchcraft. None of the staff talk of these rumours, but the girls do. Secret societies devoted to spells and the study of the dark arts thought to be responsible for the death of five students of Godwin House abound, and they draw the attention of students such as Felicity Morrow, our narrator.

Felicity was present on the night her girlfriend, Alex, disappeared and has now returned to the school to complete her studies. Certainly emotionally vulnerable, Felicity has a record of erratic behaviour and her conduct gives cause for concern. She is convinced she is haunted by the spirit of her ex-girlfriend, and we watch as strange events occur.

This year sees the arrival of new girl Ellis Haley, a published writer, and a character very keen to learn more of the hidden past of the school. She befriends Felicity in an attempt, she says, to debunk the older girl’s belief in magic and witches. But it’s clear that Ellis has other ideas in mind.

Initially rather slow, I found myself intrigued by the school and its depiction while also feeling rather disassociated from events. As the story develops and we start to see more of Ellis in action I found myself quite gripped. The relationship between Ellis and Felicity felt like something from Donna Tartt herself, and as events built to their climax I could not quite get my head around exactly which character I disliked more. To make you like and hate a character in equal measure is quite something, and Lee certainly toys with our perception of the two leads. My main issue with this – and the only reason I didn’t award 5 stars – was the sense of remove I felt at the beginning and the sense of the secondary characters/school environment being rather underdeveloped.

Thanks to NetGalley for giving me the opportunity to read this in advance of publication, and this is certainly one I’ll bookmark for a re-read at some point.

‘All the White Spaces’ – Ally Wilkes

All the White Spaces forces its characters to confront their fears as they struggle to survive a seemingly doomed expedition to Antarctica.

Our main focus is young Jonathan Morgan, left behind during the War, who follows famed explorer Randall on his journey to Antarctica. From the outset things seem tense, with certain members of the party resentful of some of those invited. When their ship is burned, the men are forced to strike out for an unchartered space. As they prepare to overwinter in this inhospitable area, it becomes clear that someone – or something – is threatening this group.

The book opens in the early stages of the journey, with Jonathan stowed away and full of excitement at the thought of proving their worth. Though slow, the opening allows us the opportunity to get to know each of the key characters within the expedition party. We see a little of their background and learn that there are many secrets on board, with all having a vested interest in keeping these secrets hidden.

When the ship is found on fire we know someone has done it. We don’t know why, but it forces the men into a situation that is fraught with danger. Slowly, details are revealed that show just how dangerous this area can be…and the creeping sense of horror was well-conveyed.

Once the men are in the abandoned huts, wondering what happened to the German party that passed this way a year earlier, I found myself more invested in the story. The underlying tensions within the party are exacerbated by the events surrounding them. Voices are heard. People find themselves lured into the open, following something they believe. Strange things start happening. Who, or what, is behind this soon becomes our focus.

What we soon realise is that the worst ghosts are those we conjure for ourselves. Haunted by the War and their own experiences, each member of the party has to confront their own ghosts if they are to survive this.

A haunting exploration of identity and historical attitudes, this was an intriguing story. I’m grateful to NetGalley for giving me the opportunity to read this prior to publication.

 

‘The Grimrose Girls’ – Laura Pohl

The Grimrose Girls makes for an interesting story…death, secrets and a boarding school with a history tinged with odd events. When the book begins we learn that Ari, a student at the school, has recently died. The general consensus is that she committed suicide, but her best friends – Yuki, Rory and Ella – are convinced that she would not have done this and there is more to the story.

Upon their return to school the girls decide to try and investigate. They have to broach some dark secrets and try to address some of the things about themselves they would prefer to keep hidden. It’s unclear who can help them and who might have something to gain from keeping them in the dark.

New girl Nani is given Ari’s place in the school and it’s no surprise that she finds it hard to settle. She has her own secrets and is reluctant to trust others. Determined to find out exactly what caused her father to leave before he got her the place at the famed school, Nani offers to help the girls try to discover what happened to Ari.

Once Nani finds a mysterious book the girls start to realise that there are some disturbing links between Ari’s death and other strange deaths of students that have taken place in the last few years.

I enjoyed the natural way in which we learned about each of the girls and the details of the mystery of the school. Some of the finer points of the story weren’t always explained, but I wonder whether this might be because there’s more details to come in the next book.

 

‘Still Life’ – Sarah Winman

The book begins with English soldier Ulysses Temper meeting Evelyn Skinner, an art historian. Their time together in Florence is brief, but there is a connection between them that permeates through much of the novel even though they don’t meet again for years. This relationship serves as a framework for many of the other relationships within the novel.

After the war Ulysses returns to England a changed man. He picks up with those who knew him before the war though everything has changed for them. As the decades pass, we are allowed to see what is happening to each of the characters. Some are, naturally, more engaging than others and there were occasions when I found it hard to establish the exact dynamics between each of the characters.

However, being allowed a glimpse into their lives was – on the whole – a delight.

I found the relationship between Peg and Ulysses rather odd, but their love for one another was evident. Ulysses ends up being bequeathed an inheritance from a man he saved in Florence, and he goes to live there with Peg’s daughter Alys. This section of the book was probably my favourite as we saw the effect place has on people, and how these characters blossomed when pushing themselves to do something different.

While Ulysses is a character whose life engages us throughout, the character I found myself most affected by was Cress. A substitute father-figure, but one whose quiet demeanour hides a lot. Uprooting himself as he did was a surprise, but watching how his life changed when he moved to Italy was beautiful.

Still Life really does read like a novel that each and every reader will have a different reaction to. While there’s lots of events referenced in its pages, the novel is character-led and this might not be to everyone’s tastes. However, the cast of characters is engaging and the minutiae of life captured with ease. The final section outlining Evelyn’s personal love affair with Florence was necessary to explain her for us, but it felt a little too much after the emotional impact of what had just happened.

 

‘If This Gets Out’ – Sophie Gonzales and Cale Dietrich

If This Gets Out takes on what I’m fairly sure is an age-old issue (the manipulation of young singers by their management) and turns it on its head while delivering a sweet romance.

Our focus is a boyband called Saturday, formed after a summer camp and at a high point in their careers. Two years after they formed, the boys are starting to find the relentless grind and excessive management stifling. Relationships are strained and all four feel they are struggling to be true to themselves when their every public moment is monitored and choreographed.

Ruben, Zach, Jon and Angel were great friends and things began well. Somewhere along the way things have started to feel less fun, and as their success grows they are under increasing pressure to toe the line.

The book focuses on the relationship that develops between Ruben and Zach, but it also explores attitudes to sexuality, the mental health issues such a high-pressure existence creates, the way friends and family can sometimes be part of the problem and the role the media/fans play in such situations.

Perhaps this is a reflection of my age, but I found the romance element of the story the least engaging as I was more fascinated by the behind-the-scenes look at this fictional boyband. I can only imagine this story may have been influenced by events surrounding some of the highly successful boybands over the last few years, but the issues it explores are probably age-old. The lack of resolution may have been an attempt to show the growing empowerment these boys felt they had, but it also left it a little too open-ended for my liking.

Thanks to NetGalley for giving me the opportunity to read this in exchange for my honest thoughts.

 

‘Iron Widow’ – Xiran Jay Zhao

Iron Widow did take a little time to get going, and the world-building was not as developed as I’d have liked. However, once we get underway this is a compelling narrative and definitely a series I’d like to continue reading.

Our main character, Zetian, is determined to become a co-pilot and use this as her opportunity to avenge her sister’s death. She wants nothing more than to fly, and to show her capabilities. But few want her to, and her plan is not without consequences.

We follow Zetian as she finds herself fighting for her people, and showing her worth. Those in power are reluctant to let her show her capabilities, but this was a great idea.

There’s plenty of action, a cracking focus on the role of women and a love triangle that didn’t have me shouting in anger at the book.

While I don’t really feel I gleaned a lot of info about how things came to be, the ending suggests that this lack of world-building might be quite deliberate. It certainly wasn’t anything I saw coming.

 

‘The Gifts that Bind Us’ – Caroline O’Donoghue

I enjoyed book one, but hadn’t loved the book as much as I’d hoped to. However, this was a much more engaging read. Darker in tone, focusing on a range of concerns and the magic felt more natural in this.

Moving on from the events surrounding Lily, the group are practising their magic and preparing to move into the next phase of their lives. They’re all looking forward, and a substantial part of the book focuses on how it feels when something so momentous starts to fragment.

Maeve is the one most affected. Unsure of her academic potential she seems destined to stay in their town, and is struggling to understand why the others are so determined to leave. She fears losing Roe and her friendships with Fiona and Lily come under pressure.

When events begin it wasn’t clear where we’d end up. The girls head back to school and are shocked to see signs of the Children returning. This toxic group has worked their way into school, trying to establish a hold on those susceptible to their message. However, it soon becomes apparent that they’re after something much bigger.

As events unfold we learn more about Maeve and her friends, their skills and the way groups such as the Children operate. There’s some unexpected developments regarding some familiar figures and it was lovely to see certain elements developed more fully here. Dramatic moments, plenty of witchy action and a wonderful focus on friendship.

Thanks to NetGalley for allowing me to read this before its scheduled February 2022 publication.